Fright Club: Gas Stations in Horror

You think the price of gas will kill you! What about those creepy gas attendants?

Gas stations, for one reason or another, have become a staple in horror films – especially slashers and those backwoods thrillers. Jenny Raya of Dave’s Pop Culture Podcast joins us to count down the films that make the most of the spooky service station.

5. Tucker and Dale Versus Evil (2010)

Because Eli Craig’s comedic upending of the hillbilly horror sub-genre is nearly perfect, there had to be a pivotal scene set in a gas station.

Two backwoods buddies (an endearing Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk) head to their mountain cabin for a weekend of fishing. En route they meet some college kids on their own camping adventure. A comedy of errors, misunderstandings and subsequent, escalating violence follows as the kids misinterpret every move Tucker and Dale make.

In the tradition of Shaun of the Dead, T&DVE lovingly sends up a familiar subgenre with insightful, self-referential humor, upending expectations by taking the point of view of the presumably villainous hicks. And it happens to be hilarious.

4. Splinter (2008)

Road kill, a carjacking, an abandoned gas station, some quills – it doesn’t take much for first time feature filmmaker and longtime visual effects master Toby Wilkins to get under your skin. One cute couple just kind of wants to camp in Oklahoma’s ancient forest (which can never be a good idea, really). Too bad a couple of ne’er-do-wells needs their car. Then a flat (what was that – a porcupine? No!!) sends them to that creepy gas station, and all hell breaks loose.

Contamination gymnastics call to mind the great John Carpenter flick The Thing, but Splinteris its own animal. Characters have depth and arcs, the danger is palpable, the kills pretty amazing, and the overall aesthetic of that old highway gives everything a desperately lonesome quality where you believe anything could happen and no rescue is in sight.

3. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Wes Craven’s original Hills – cheaply made and poorly acted – is a surprisingly memorable, and even more surprisingly alarming flick. Craven’s early career is marked by a contempt for both characters and audience, and his first two horror films ignored taboos, mistreating everyone on screen and in the theater. In the style of Deliverance meets Mad MaxHills was an exercise in pushing the envelope, and it owes what lasting popularity it has to its shocking violence and Michael Berryman’s nightmarish mug.

The nightmare begins (and for a lot of people, ends) at Fred’s Oasis – the last gas station before hitting an unforgiving stretch of desert.

The Hills Have Eyes is not for the squeamish. People are raped, burned alive, eaten alive, eaten dead, and generally ill-treated. You can’t say Fred didn’t warn them.

2. Deliverance (1972)

Nine notes on a banjo have never sounded so creepy.

Deliverance follows four buddies staving off mid-life crises with a canoeing adventure in southern Georgia, where a man’s not afraid to admire another man’s mouth.

They stop off, as travelers must, at a service station. No one warns them, no one delivers ominous news, but come on, no one had to. One look at the locals spending their days at that gas station should have been enough to convince them to turn back.

James Dickey streamlined his own novel to its atmospheric best, and director John Boorman plays on urbanite fears like few have done since. Dickey and Boorman mean to tell you that progress has created a soft bellied breed of man unable to survive without the comforts of a modern age.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsC4kf6x_Q0&t=128s

1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Who wants barbeque?

Jim Siedow’s under-appreciated performance as de facto patriarch begins at Last Chance Gas.

First is the classic “you don’t want to go there” warnings, a long tradition in backwoods and slasher horror. But Hooper has something fun up his sleeve with this one, introducing Siedow as a likable weirdo, a concerned older Southern gentleman.

So when Sally Hardesty makes it away from the carnage all the way back to the service station, the tension, betrayal and sadism that follows feels that much more awful and unseemly.

Plus they had bought barbeque earlier! Eeeewww!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ID77MV6g8dc

Fright Club: Best Wes Craven Movies

It’s time again to celebrate the work of a great horror filmmaker. Today it’s Wes Craven, a man who reimagined the genre again and again over his career. Sometimes with graphic violence, sometimes with satirical humor, always with a vivid imagination, Craven could make the viewer feel unsafe – a great place to start if you’re making a scary movie. Do you like scary movies?

Listen to the full podcast HERE.

5. Last House on the Left (1972)

Wes Craven made his dubious feature directorial debut with this 1972 revenge fantasy. Watch the film at your own risk, and follow the tale of a trusting family whose beloved and wholesome daughter falls into the hands of evildoers. Her fate is unknown to her family until her attackers are unknowingly taken in for the night by her family in an act of kindness. Once their crime is discovered, the family abandons decency and wreaks bloody vengeance.

Craven’s interest is the brutality – of the killers, and then the family. He wallows so mercilessly in both that this picture carries a measure of notoriety missing from anything else Craven’s directed – even The Hills Have Eyes. It’s been banned in countries the world over.

His film is not a good one, and what psychological merit it has – the idea of decent people abandoning decency in favor of blood soaked revenge – isn’t Craven’s own. (Last House on the Left is, in fact, a remake of Ingmar Bertman’s Oscar winner The Virgin Spring.) Still, for all its cartoonish sadism and contempt, for its artless disgust, Last House is an interesting genre entity, particularly as the first step in Craven’s career. It’s a horror film, plain and simple. No tidy idea that violence can be resolved through violence, or that any act of brutality is justifiable. It’s an ugly film that leaves you feeling ugly, but horror is not meant to brighten your day, eh?

4. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Wes Craven’s original Hills – cheaply made and poorly acted – is a surprisingly memorable, and even more surprisingly alarming flick. Craven’s early career is marked by a contempt for both characters and audience, and his first two horror films ignored taboos, mistreating everyone on screen and in the theater. In the style of Deliverance meets Mad Max, Hills was an exercise in pushing the envelope, and it owes what lasting popularity it has to its shocking violence and Michael Berryman’s nightmarish mug.

The Hills Have Eyes is not for the squeamish. People are raped, burned alive, eaten alive, eaten dead, and generally ill-treated.

In fact, Craven’s greatest triumph is in creating tension via a plot device so unreasonably gruesome no audience would believe a film could go through with it. The freaks kidnap a baby with plans to eat her. But by systematically crushing taboo after taboo, the unthinkable becomes plausible, and the audience grows to fear that the baby will actually be eaten. It’s not the kind of accomplishment you’d want to share with your mom, but in terms of genre control, it is pretty good.

3. Scream 2 (1997)

Updating his celebratory meta-analysis of genre clichés, Craven checked back in on Sydney Prescott (Neve Campell) and crew a couple years later, as the surviving members of the Woodsboro murders settled into a new semester at Windsor College. The movie Stab, based on the horrors Sydney and posse survived (well, some didn’t survive) just two years ago is already out and screening on campus, but has it inspired copycat killers?

Craven, working again from a screenplay by Kevin Williamson, goes even more meta, using the film-within-a-film technique while simultaneously poking fun at horror sequel clichés in his own horror sequel.

And in the same way Scream subverted horror tropes while employing them to joyous results, the sequel – funny, tense, scary, smart, and fun – manages to find freshness by digging through what should be stale.

2. Nightmare on Elm St. (1984)

Teens on suburban Elm St. share nightmares, and one by one, these teens are not waking up. Not that their disbelieving parents care. When Tina woke one night, her nightgown shredded by Freddie’s razor fingers, her super-classy mother admonished, “Tina, hon, you gotta cut your fingernails or you gotta stop that kind of dreamin’. One or the other.”

Depositing a boogieman in your dreams to create nightmares that will truly kill you was a genius concept by writer/director Craven because you can only stay awake for so long. It took everyone’s fear of nightmares to a more concrete level.

The film was sequeled to death, it suffers slightly from a low budget and even more from a synth-heavy score and weak FX that date it, but it’s still an effective shocker. That face that stretches through the wall is cool, the stretched out arms behind Tina are still scary. The nightmare images are apt, and the hopscotch chant and the vision of Freddie himself were not only refreshingly original but wildly creepy.

1. Scream (1996)

In his career, Wes Craven has reinvented horror any number of times. When Scream hit screens in 1996, we were still three years from the onslaught of the shakey cam, six years from the deluge of Asian remakes, and nearly ten years from the first foul waft of horror porn. In its time, Scream resurrected a basically dying genre, using clever meta-analysis and black humor.

What you have is a traditional high school slasher – someone dons a likeness of Edvard Munch’s most famous painting and plants a butcher knife in a local teen, leading to red herrings, mystery, bloodletting and whatnot. But Craven’s on the inside looking out and he wants you to know it.

What makes Scream stand apart is the way it critiques horror clichés as it employs them, subverting expectation just when we most rely on it. As the film opens, Casey (Drew Barrymore) could have survived entirely (we presume) had she only remembered that it was not, in fact, Jason Voorhees who killed all those campers in Friday the 13th; it was his mother. A twisted reverence for the intricacies of slashers is introduced in the film’s opening sequence, then glibly revisited in one form or another in nearly every scene after.

We spent the next five years or more watching talented TV teens and sitcom stars make the big screen leap to slashers, mostly with weak results, but Scream stands the test of time. It could be the wryly clever writing or the solid performances, but we think it’s the joyous fondness for a genre and its fans that keeps this one fresh.





Fright Club: Road Trip Horror

It’s summer time! Maybe you’ve gotten it into your head to pack up the family truckster and set off on an adventure, take a road trip? Well, we’re here to talk you out of it. Whether it’s Joy Ride or Wrong Turn, Brotherhood of Satan or Race with the Devil, or any one of the films on this list, if there is one thing our research has shown us, it’s that we’re staying safe at home this summer.

5. The Hitcher (1986)

Baby faced C. Thomas Howell – still a star in 1986 – finds himself falling asleep behind the wheel as he drives a car from Chicago to San Diego. In a torrential downpour, he picks up a hitchhiker – the effortlessly terrifying Rutger Hauer.

Hauer’s John Ryder immediately creeps you out, and his peculiarly sinister nature bounces beautifully off Howell’s slack jawed innocence. Hauer goes on to do very bad things, especially to truck stop heroine Jennifer Jason Leigh. Yikes.

First time director Robert Harmon does a nice job of ratcheting up tension by exploring the calm surrounding Howell’s shaken character: the roadside, the townies, the slumbering mountains on the horizon, and in particular, Hauer’s serene psychopath. The discrepancy fosters an anxiety in the audience, and though Howell’s crybaby driver Jim Halsey makes consistently idiotic decisions, he’s so convincingly innocent that we forgive him.

4. Duel (1971)

Steven Spielberg was just 25 years old when he directed this taut thriller about mysterious road rage.

Dennis Weaver stars as a salesman on a business road trip who finds himself terrorized by the driver of a big rig. Based on Richard Matheson’s short story that sprang from a real-life incident, the film shows young Spielberg’s filmmaking instincts were already razor sharp. He rachets the tension early and often, knowing that our fear for the life of the salesman becomes even greater when mixed with the frustration of not knowing why he is being targeted.

Originally produced as a TV movie of the week, Duel eventually received a limited theatrical run, and it is flush with all the elements of a winning big screen pulse-pounder.

3. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Wes Craven’s original Hills – cheaply made and poorly acted – is a surprisingly memorable, and even more surprisingly alarming flick. Craven’s early career is marked by a contempt for both characters and audience, and his first two horror films ignored taboos, mistreating everyone on screen and in the theater. In the style of Deliverance meets Mad Max, Hills was an exercise in pushing the envelope, and it owes what lasting popularity it has to its shocking violence and Michael Berryman’s nightmarish mug.

A suburban American family on a road trip takes an ill-advised “short cut” through this New Mexican desert to find themselves the targets of a family of inbred mutants’ blood lust.

The Hills Have Eyes – Craven’s original or Alexandre Aja’s 2006 reboot – is not for the squeamish. People are raped, burned alive, eaten alive, eaten dead, and generally ill-treated.

In fact, Craven’s greatest triumph is in creating tension via a plot device so unreasonably gruesome no audience would believe a film could go through with it. The freaks kidnap a baby with plans to eat her. But by systematically crushing taboo after taboo, the unthinkable becomes plausible, and the audience grows to fear that the baby will actually be eaten. It’s not the kind of accomplishment you’d want to share with your mom, but in terms of genre control, it is pretty good.

2. Wolf Creek (2005)

Some of the best scares in film have come as the reaction to urbanites’ fear of losing our tentative grasp on our own link in the food chain once we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere. With Wolf Creek, it’s as if writer/director Greg McLean looked at American filmmakers’ preoccupation with backwoods thrillers and scoffed, in his best Mick Dundee, “That’s not the middle of nowhere. This is the middle of nowhere.” McLean explores the isolated beauty of this vast, empty Australian middle with spectacularly creepy results.

Using only digital cameras to enhance an ultra-naturalistic style, McLean’s happy backpackers find themselves immobile outside Wolf Creek National Park when their car stops running. As luck would have it, friendly bushman Mick Taylor (a startlingly horrifying, utterly perfect John Jarratt) drives up offering a tow back to his camp, where he promises to fix the vehicle.

A horror film this realistic is not only hard to watch, but a bit hard to justify. What makes an audience interested in observing human suffering so meticulously recreated? This is where, like a true artist, McLean finally succeeds. What is as unsettling as the film itself is that its content is somehow satisfying.

1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Not everyone considers Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a classic. Those people are wrong. Perhaps even stupid.

Franklin Hardesty, his pretty sister Sally, and a few other friends head out to Grampa Hardesty’s final resting place after hearing the news of some Texas cemeteries being grave robbed. They pick up a hitchhiker, played with glorious insanity by Edwin Neal. The Hitchhiker is part of a family of cannibals, and the youths will eventually stumble upon their digs.

It is classic because Hooper masterfully enlisted a low rent verite for this bizarre story to do something utterly new. The camera work, so home-movie like, worked with the “based on a true story” tag line like nothing before it, and the result seriously disturbed the folks of 1974. It has been ripped off and copied dozens of times since its release, but in the context of its time, it was so absolutely original it was terrifying.

Hooper sidestepped all the horror gimmicks audiences had grown accustomed to – a spooky score that let you know when to grow tense, shadowy interiors that predicted oncoming scares – and instead shot guerilla-style in broad daylight, outdoors, with no score at all. You just couldn’t predict what was coming. He was after an entirely different kind of tension. He dashes your expectations, making you uncomfortable, as if you have no idea what you could be in for. As if, in watching this film, you yourself are in more danger than you’d predicted.

But not more danger than Franklin is in, because Franklin is not in for a good time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vs3981DoINw





One Scary Movie Per Day in October. Day 11: Tucker and Dale vs Evil

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)

Horror cinema’s most common and terrifying villain may not be the vampire or even the zombie, but the hillbilly. The Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance and hundreds of others both play upon and solidify urban dwellers’ paranoia about good country folk. The generous, giddy Tucker and Dale vs. Evil lampoons that dread with good natured humor and a couple of rubes you can root for.

In the tradition of Shaun of the Dead, T&DVE lovingly sends up a familiar subgenre with insightful, self-referential humor, upending expectations by taking the point of view of the presumably villainous hicks. And it happens to be hilarious.

Two backwoods buddies (an endearing Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk) head to their mountain cabin for a weekend of fishing. En route they meet some college kids on their own camping adventure. A comedy of errors, misunderstandings and subsequent, escalating violence follows as the kids misinterpret every move Tucker and Dale make.

Director Eli Craig’s clever role reversal screenplay, co-written with Morgan Jurgenson, recreates the tension-building scenes that have become horror shorthand for “the hillbillies are coming.”  From the bait and tackle/convenience store encounter with bib overall clad townies, to the campfire retelling of likeminded teens lost forever in the wooded abyss, the set up is perfect.

Each punchline offers the would-be killers’ innocent point of view – expressing their increasingly baffled take on what appears to them to be a suicide pact among the coeds.

T&DVE offers enough spirit and charm to overcome most weaknesses. Inspired performances and sharp writing make it certainly the most fun participant in the You Got a Purty Mouth class of film.